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This review is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.


Hamlet was famously described by T.S. Eliot as an 'artistic failure', the argument in favour of this conclusion consisting of that mixture of pseudo-precision and impenetrable vagueness which characterised this critic's writings on those occasions when he was more anxious to impress or shock than to shed light on something, as he was certainly capable of doing when he wished. The play has survived his strictures, as it has survived Voltaire's and Leo Tolstoy's, as it will survive other strictures in the future.

For the ex cathedra weight with which Eliot's judgement was delivered is in inverse proportion to its emptiness and serves, paradoxically, to make more clearly manifest the essential powerlessness of criticism. I am reminded of Joseph Kerman's discoveries of 'weaknesses' in Beethoven's late quartets, and of the musician Hans Keller's words: 'in proportion as one experiences and so understands a work of art, one loses interest in its evaluative criticism. Criticism is a symptom of incomprehension and misunderstanding.' These words ring true to me, and will do so, I think, to anyone who is willing to examine his or her experience honestly.

A friend of Keller's, the remarkable Deryck Cooke, wrote in an essay entitled The Futility of Musical Criticism, 'Far more valuable than any criticism I have ever read is the expository writing of Tovey, who meekly accepted the supremacy of the masters, and tried to elucidate the secrets of their art.' And where Shakespeare's plays are concerned, it is the ...

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